NOAA publishes global list of fisheries and their risks to marine mammals

The list includes nearly 4,000 fisheries across some 135 countries.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has published the first list of foreign fisheries, detailing the risks that commercial fishing around the world pose to marine mammals.

“The [List of Foreign Fisheries] is an important milestone because it provides the global community a view into the marine mammal bycatch levels of commercially relevant fisheries,” according to a statement published on the NOAA Fisheries website.

“In addition, it offers us a better understanding of the impacts of marine mammal bycatch, an improvement of tools and scientific approaches to mitigating those impacts, and establishes a new level of international cooperation in achieving these objectives,” the statement says.

North Atlantic right whale mother and calf. Photo in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The register is a step toward meeting specific requirements in the Marine Mammal Protection Act on the sources of fish imported into the U.S. It includes nearly 4,000 fisheries across some 135 countries. These fisheries have until 2022 to demonstrate that the methods they use to catch fish, as well as other marine animals such as coral, crabs, lobsters and shellfish, either aren’t much of a danger to marine mammals, or they employ comparable methods and mitigation measures to similar operations in the United States.

Fishing nets can exact a high toll on animals that fishers don’t intend to catch. Nets themselves can trap dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions as bycatch. In Mexico, a fishery targeting the totoaba for its swim bladders that fetch high prices in Asian markets has decimated the tiny porpoise known as the vaquita (Phocoena sinus). Perhaps as few as 12 remain in the wild.

The lines from traps, pots and nets can also ensnare even the largest animals in the ocean. Recent research has shown that almost every one of the estimated remaining 451 North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) either is toting errant fishing equipment around or it bears the scars of entanglements with gear. These ropes can cause injuries to right whales and other animals that can lead to infection or death. And towing pieces of gear that can be longer than the whale’s body causes what scientists call “parasitic” drag that can interfere with the ability to find food.

According to the 2016 rule requiring the list, the requirement grew out of a 2008 petition to the Department of Commerce brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network to halt the import of swordfish from countries where fishing methods put marine mammals and other animals in danger. In 2011 and 2012, other environmental NGOs implored NOAA Fisheries to bar farmed salmon from Canada and Scotland from entering the country. They alleged that fish farmers shoot seals to keep them from picking off salmon.

Nets pose a threat to other marine animals, such as this sea turtle, in addition to whales, dolphins and porpoises. Photo by Doug Helton, NOAA/NOS/ORR/ERD [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Far-reaching assessments of the fisheries, ranging from the species they target and the number of boats and fishers involved to the gear used and the known information about marine mammal bycatch, allowed NOAA investigators to determine the risks to marine mammals. If they deemed the threats to be minimal, such as with the cast-net fishery for squid in Indonesia, the team designated it as “exempt.”

If they did find risks, as in about 60 percent of the fisheries they looked at, they labeled it “export.” These export fisheries now must demonstrate by 2022 that they are taking similar precautions to analogous fishing efforts in the United States — such as using modified gear that reduces the threat to marine mammals — to continue exporting their take to the U.S. market.

“The long-term conservation impact of the MMPA import rule and the creation of the List of Foreign Fisheries demonstrate the potential impact of collaboration on marine mammal conservation on a global scale — a strong step forward in our efforts to achieve sustainable, resilient fisheries,” NOAA Fisheries said on its site in November 2017.

Banner image of an entangled whale by Ed Lyman/NOAA [Public Domain].

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